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Accessing opportunity

Keith Scribbins describes a pioneering scheme for offering hope to `information have-nots'.

It isn't often these days that the United States can pay tribute to Britain for being first in the field and leading the world. If you were to nominate an area with remote prospects of such an accolade you wouldn't say the superhighway. And there you would be wrong.

For in the first week of November the information technology company ICL and the South Bristol Learning Network, were congratulated by no lesser figures than Richard Civille and Mario Morino - by e-mail as you might expect - on the launch of our cyberskills workshops. "We applaud your efforts and leadership and look forward to learning how this training model can be applied here in the States," said Richard Civille, who is the director of the US Centre for Civic Networking.

"The work being done by the Learning Network is indeed unique and advanced, and is highly relevant to the needs of people not only in south Bristol, but the UK and the rest of the World," was how Mario Morino, the president of the Morino Institute, put it.

Two years ago SBLN won with Avon TEC one of the TEC challenge awards. Since then, under the leadership of John O'Hara, a Canadian who has lived in south Bristol for 19 years, the company has achieved three main things. First, it dedicated itself only to employing formerly unemployed south Bristol residents. Of the 55 men and women who have passed through the company - few of whom had IT skills to start with - 48 are now in full-time jobs or following higher education courses. Currently 17 staff work for the company.

Second, the project was designed to empower south Bristol citizens, in their work or social activities, and local employers, to learn quickly about information technology and apply its latest developments - multimedia, info services, the Internet, the highway and all that - in their everyday lives.

The ICLSBLN workshops are the culmination of that effort. The cyberskill plan operating between now and next March involves 75 workshops for 1,000 key influencers in Bristol and beyond, 100 multimedia roadshow workshops for another 1,000 and 151 Internet training sessions. All these activities are free and include hands on operation of Internet, video conferencing, desk top data management, compuserve, CD-Rom and e-mail.

Third, the project is an exercise in confidence-building. South Bristol has been knocked in the local and national press and described as one of 10 British no-go areas after the Hartcliffe riots. For more than a generation it has had high rates of crime, truancy, premature school leaving and unemployment. It has no motorway or rail infrastructure.

But we know that the citizens of south Bristol didn't feel they were in a no-go area. They've struggled for years with the problems. They want change. And they are a tightly knit community with - usefully for the project - a plethora of community groups.

ICL's mission as a company reflects that of SBLN. It believes in creating solutions based on what customers need, not on flooding the market with ready made solutions. It takes a very balanced view about the superhighway.

Malcolm Napier, ICL's strategic business development manager, believes that for at least the next few years access will be via centres - schools, colleges, clubs and societies - not predominantly via homes.

He points out that this makes the highway more manageable for there are about 35,000 potential centres as against 10 million homes.

Typically, he says, this is about the here and now not some visionary future. It also makes education or lifelong learning the focus of development. Business and entertainment use will take care of themselves. The access to education and information at the local level is the thing which needs attention.

In an area like south Bristol this community focus is important. Already commentators are talking about a new form of social deprivation - the "information have-nots".

The obsession with home-based access could exclude those who can't afford or don't come to possess the technology in their own homes. Sociologists used to say there is one universal predictor of education achievement - the presence of books in the home. For the future the Superhighway's home- based peripherals might have that status.

The SBLN project has other notable partners. The South Bristol College hosts the project and is soon to open its drop-in learning centre complete with an SBLN access point. BT is devoting free line time for some aspects of the ICLSBLN work.

Compuserve is subsidising access to its vast data bank and to the Internet. United Artists (currently cabling the whole of Bristol and beyond) is providing free installation of cable to the 61 schools in the South Bristol CollegeSchools Federation.

In essence, if we can keep it going, the SBLN will be an exciting venture not just because it is at the frontier of technology and not just because it creates a local access learning and information network in a community which has a great need for it.

It is exciting because it is a model for the late 20th century of co-operation between public institutions and the private sector.

Keith Scribbins is the chair of the board of the South Bristol Learning Network.

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